ASPEN - The Winter X Games are gone until next year but they certainly aren't forgotten.
Aspen Skiing Co. officials said Friday they remain in negotiations with ESPN to keep the popular event at Buttermilk Ski Area well beyond 2012, when the current contract runs out.
"We're doing everything we can to keep them here," said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. "I think they'd like to stay here. We're all moving with some sense of urgency."
The Skico's main negotiator is John Rigney, vice president of sales and events. When asked if he was concerned that no extension has been inked yet, he responded, "Of course I'm concerned, because it's of paramount importance to us to get this signed."
However, he said observers shouldn't be panicked by the lack of a long-term deal. Both ESPN and the Skico are asking the other party to consider some major points as part of the new deal, Rigney said, and those points need careful consideration. He declined to discuss the major points that are being negotiated.
Rigney said the Skico's goal is to sign another multi-year deal that would be in effect after next year's games. He and ESPN will continue talking rather than waiting to resume talks when the 2012 games roll around. That said, ESPN is preparing for the 2011 Winter X Games Europe in Tignes, France, March 16-18, so representatives of the sports network are busy, Rigney noted.
The Winter X Games were started 15 years ago, the last 10 events being held at Buttermilk. A four-year deal was signed in 2006 to keep the event at Buttermilk from 2007 through 2010, then a two-year extension was later added for 2011 and 2012.
Skico officials realize that other resorts covet the event and they "are pursuing this to one degree or another," according to Rigney. He believes ESPN would be hard-pressed to find another resort that essentially devotes an entire base area to the event and a community that hosts it as well as Aspen. "They feel they're part of the community and they're welcome here," Rigney said.
The compact venue at Buttermilk is ideal for access for spectators, coordination of preparations and for presenting to a television audience, he said. The Skico has the advantage of offering customers three other resorts and 85 percent of Buttermilk while it converts the Buttermilk base into a multi-event stadium. The X Games don't interfere with skiing and they draw people to town for what was once a slow period. Occupancy for hotels and lodges rivals that of Christmas week during the X Games.
Lodging is one of ESPN's biggest expenses. Hanle said the Aspen-Snowmass Village lodging community has "really pitched in over the last 10 years to make it work." Therefore, Aspen doesn't seem vulnerable on that front.
This year's Winter X Games drew a record crowd estimated at 114,200 during the four-day event. That was an increase of 36 percent from the year before. Excellent weather helped drive the numbers.
Rigney said he doesn't believe ESPN has any desire to move closer to an urban area to gain spectators at the venue. The X Games are largely a made-for-TV-event.
"The real audience they're after is the TV audience and that continues to grow," Hanle said.
ESPN said 39.7 million viewers from the U.S. tuned in to the event over the four days this year. It gets broadcast to 382 million homes in 154 countries.
ESPN.com/Action had its most-trafficked Winter X competition day ever on Sunday, Jan. 30, with more than one million page views, up 18 percent from Winter X Games 14, the network said.
With the success of the last decade, Rigney likes Aspen's chances of keeping the Winter X Games. "It really will be a community effort if we sign a contract," he said.